One to One with Director Firdaus Balam

Meet the man behind ‘Bagan’ film that showcases about the Orang Asli people

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‘Bagan’ tells a story of indigenous children in Malaysia

Firdaus Balam is a Malaysian filmmaker who earned a Bachelor of Cinematic Arts from Multimedia University Iskandar Puteri. He was highly influenced by Abbas Kiarostami and Bong Joon Hoo films and is passionate about Malaysian insight tales and indigenous culture. ‘Anak Seletar’ was his first long-form documentary, in which he follows the lives of an indigenous tribe in Malaysia’s south, and his latest film ‘Bagan’ was just selected for the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) 2021. We recently had the opportunity to touch base with this local talent who is making a name for himself. 

Hi, Firdaus, we are glad to have this interview with you through SGIFF. Share with us about your journey of having your film screened at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF)?

It was a dream come true for me to have my film screened at the SGIFF. 2 years ago, I attended an event, ‘NEW WAVES 2019 – SPOTLIGHT: Anthony Chen’ that was organised by the SGIFF. After the event, I was very inspired to learn more about the cinematic industry, thinking to myself how good it would be to have my film screened at any film festivals. I also love Iranian and Korean film makers such as Abbas Kiarstami and Lee Chang Dong. 

‘Bagan’ is my second short film. I never expected my work to be screened at the biggest film festival in Asia, so thank you to my lecturers Mr Ghazi Alqudcy and Mr Furqaan. Both of them believed in my dream and have always motivated me to learn more of what is the true meaning behind the word ‘Cinema’. 

One to One with Director Firdaus Balam
Firdaus Balam, the Director of ‘Bagan’

Can you tell us what ‘Bagan’ is about and what viewers can expect out of it?

The word ‘Bagan’ comes from one of the Orang Asli Language (Temiar), which means “Temporary Destination”. This film is the representation of the Orang Asli community, especially Seletar, about their fate in their own homeland. Through the eyes of 2 kids, viewers can understand how a developing country treats the Aboriginal people without empathy for the sake of modernisation. 

I believe every person in this world has their own best friend. However, sometimes friendships end unexpectedly, and without willingness. In a friendship, we will always argue about trivial things and have unnecessary discussions. I hope that viewers can enjoy and bring back their childhood memories and understand the value of it. 

Tell us why did you choose to tell the Orang Asli story in ‘Bagan’ and who do you think should watch it?

The first time I came to that the village located at Sungai Temon, Johor Bahru, was around 2019. I immediately fell in love with the village as it gave me calmness. I started to spend time with the kids of Orang Asli and documented them day by day. After 4 months of documentation, I edited the clips and made them into a documentary; ‘Anak Seletar’ which was my first film. This documentary focuses on the daily lives of the Seletar kids and was screened in the Mini Film Festival and Cardiff International Film Festival, and it won the best Indigenous Film (Golden Kinabalu Awards) at Kota Kinabalu Film Festival. 

I don’t have a specific target of an audience for ‘Bagan’. I tried to make this film as enjoyable and universal, and I made this film for the Orang Asli community. They have very little representation in the film industry, and I want to carry their voices in fighting about the rights of their land. 

One to One with Director Firdaus Balam
‘Bagan’ promotional poster

We are proud to learn that as a graduate of MMU Iskandar Puteri, Johor, you made your way this far to be featured at the SGIFF. Do you have any words of advice to share to film students and hopeful Malaysian filmmakers?

Keep believing in your dream. The power of imagination can make you overcome challenges and continuously motivate you. The true education of film is by making a film. Shoot any story, and brave yourself to risk. By doing that, you will learn the mistakes from your own film. There are 2 types of people in this world – One who is talented, and one who is hardworking. I believe a hardworking person can be better than a lazy talented person, so keep making films!

Another thing I would like to advise is always put your ego down when someone judges or criticizes your film. Listen to other people’s opinions. Criticism will always improve your vision and strengthen your voice for the next film. 

One to One with Director Firdaus Balam
“This film is the representation of the Orang Asli community, especially Seletar, about their fate in their own homeland.” – Firdaus Balam

From this film, you have explored the unknown and unseen issues of the Orang Asli. In 5 years down the line, what do you see yourself making?

There are many issues happening in Malaysia. I would love to explore more of the unknown and unseen issues in the Malaysian society. Their voices are not heard by anyone, so I hope in 5 years’ time, I can make a bigger picture – like a feature film about the Orang Asli. Our society needs to make them (Orang Asli) part of our community. 

What is next for Firdaus Balam? Any work in progress you have right now that you would like to prompt our readers beforehand? 

I am currently working as a content director at an advertising and marketing agency, Kaya N Kaya Viral Sdn Bhd. This company is in the planning stages to make their first commercial feature film next year, and I am glad to be given the opportunity to write a script which gives the working title, ‘Bakar’. 

For now, at the age of 23, I’m trying to learn as much as I can. I have to admit that it is difficult to make a film that everyone can enjoy when watching. I’m also planning to make an indie feature film with a very low budget and minimalist style under the same company that produced ‘Bagan’, called Singgah Production. 

Lastly, what would be the one word you personally think would entice people to watch your film?

Humanity.

‘Bagan’ Film Trailer

We’d like to wish Firdaus all the very best for his future and never stop making films that matters!